Why do you like to sing? There is something transformative that happens when our soul and body connect to the melody and text of a song. Here are what I consider to be the top 5 reasons why we should be singing in church. These ideas are adapted from Dennis L. Bushkofsky and Craig A. Satterlee, The Christian Life: Baptism and Life Passages. Augsburg Fortress, 2008. p. 55.
Singing is communal. Singing in church is meant to be more than a bunch of solo voices forming notes at the same time in one space. When an assembly breathes together at the same time, creating the same pitches and harmonies, something unites all our solo voices into one. We become connected to everyone in the space. This connection seeps out of the current time and place and touches all believers from past and future and across the world.
Singing nurtures faith. You are what you eat. In the same fashion, you believe what you sing. The story of God’s creation, reconciliation, and new creation is best learned in the psalms, songs, and hymns that have sustained generations before as well as those yet to come.
Singing shapes memory. The songs that nurture our faith also give us the handlebars to hold onto our faith when crisis and frailty arrives. The songs of our brothers and sisters can lift us up and remind us of God’s faithfulness when we need it. Sometimes we need to sing for others. There will be times when others need to sing for us.
Singing opens us to the Spirit. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation, God makes a home amidst our praises. When we sing in community the hardened parts of our heart are broken open. We become open and receptive to how God is moving around us.
Singing builds trust. When I open my mouth and sing in church I am instantly vulnerable. What if I stick out? What if I sing out of tune? What if I sing the wrong word? What if people think my voice is ugly? There is nothing like vulnerability that provides a place for trust to grow. And church is the one place where we should be able to trust that we are loved.
Unfortunately, there is a bit of deception with my tips for vocalists.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Don’t be a diva.
The Parable of the Two Vocalists
Once upon a time, there were two vocalists. These two vocalists were both going to sing during a worship service for a church. Both of the vocalists went to the church for a sound check and rehearsal. The first vocalist had a pleasant attitude, sang in a simple style, had a beautiful tone, and had no problems with anyone. The first vocalist was a joy to listen to and approached singing in church with an air of humility.
The second vocalist began the rehearsal by noticing that the air conditioning made the room feel drafty. The second vocalist described how at home they had air diffusers to prevent this drafty feeling. Then the second vocalist noticed that the microphone didn’t have enough of a high frequency boost in the EQ. Next the second vocalist requested that the noise gates and compression be turned off on their mic channel. Then the second vocalist said that a church this large should have a floor wedge monitor system and refused to try the in-ear-monitor system. Next the second vocalist argued with the musician about what tempo the song should be. After the musician changed the tempo of the song, the second vocalist accused the musician of incorrectly adjusting the tempo in the opposite direction. Then the second vocalist decided to change the key of the song.
The second vocalist was a diva. Don’t be a diva. Be like the first vocalist.
Several years ago I fulfilled the dream of every musician. I bought a drum kit. Because every musician wishes they were as cool as the drummer.
I’ve had the chance to play with some amazing drummers in my musical journey. While I may not be the most proficient on drums, I can suggest a few things that make them sound better. Here are my top 5 tips for playing drums in worship:
Keep it simple. Like I said, this really does apply to every instrument in the ensemble. If everyone dials back what they play there is room for the vocals (and thus the spiritual content of the song) to breathe. For drummers this primarily means simplifying the kick drum patterns. Less kick is more. You’d be surprised how often playing the kick on two and four is all a section of a song needs.
Careful with the fills. Fills are tricky. You can’t leave them out. Fills occupy the transitional spaces of a song. They need to carry a song from section to section. On the other hand, fills can be overdone. A redundant fill is the worst. Too many fills are overkill. I suggest thoughtfully mapping out where fills will be used in a song. Think about how the fill helps with the transition during the song. Is it shifting down into a softer section? Is it heading to the beginning of a building section? The fill can set this up. Please – no tom rolls.
Vary the cymbals. Change which cymbal you hit when you move to a different section of the song. If you’re playing high hat on the verse, don’t continue playing high hat (the same way) on the chorus. Switch to ride or open the high hat. Explore all the different ways that the cymbals can be used.
Hit the drum. To get the best tone out of a drum, you have to hit it. A soft touch produces a wimpy tone. The drum doesn’t even have a chance to sound correct. Much depends on the room and how microphones are being used, which is why you have to…
Use sensitivity. Hitting the drum properly to produce a good tone will cause problems. That is why they lock drummers in fish bowls. You have to know when to sacrifice tone for the greater good. That requires sensitivity (and a dose of humility). A good drummer notices all the sound levels. They know how loud the mains are, how loud the monitors are, and how the drums will need to be complimentary to all.
You might not know it, but when I first started leading worship in high school I played bass guitar. It is still my favorite instrument in a lot of ways. I enjoy every chance I get to play bass with a group. Here are my top 5 tips for playing the bass guitar in worship:
Keep it simple. If you’ve ever played in a band with me, you’ve probably heard me say this many times. My critique is often that instruments play too much and play rhythms that are too complex. This is true of any instrument, but is especially true for the bass guitar. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There is no shame in staying on the root of the chord and letting the note sustain. The bass guitar is rarely the focus. Make room for the other instruments.
Color the drums. The bass guitar is the harmonic foundation of the band. It does this work in tandem with the drums or percussion. I like to think of the bass guitar being the tonal coloring of the drums. So when the drummer plays the kick drum, giving the band a rhythmic foundation to build on, the bass guitar is providing the tonal color for the kick drum so that the rhythmic foundation now has pitch.
Stand near the drummer. Because drums and bass guitar work in tandem, creating a hybrid harmonic/rhythmic foundation for the band, it makes sense that they should be in proximity to each other. But I often see them separated. Being close enough to visually cue each other is essential. Being close enough to “feel” the groove from each other is better.
Use the middle of the neck. All the tone and sustain comes from the middle of the neck on the bass guitar. So instead of playing the note “A” using the open string, play it on the fifth fret of the E string.
Finesse the notes. Every little detail matters. Give attention to how the notes are started and stopped. Plucking the string doesn’t have to be done so harshly. Let the amplification do the work – not your fingers. Do your notes buzz or sound rough? Make sure your finger is placed right against the fret of the note you’re playing. Work to smoothly transition from note to note, with no gaps between the pitches.